Closing the skills gap in maintenance-related sectors

EEF Education and Skills Policy Advisor Bhavina Bharkhada outlines the growing challenges in recruitment and suggests how to close the gap

The Government, businesses and policymakers can all agree on one thing: the maintenance-related industrial sector, and manufacturing industry more widely, face a growing skills gap. We desperately need more young people in our industry: here are few statistics that put the challenge into perspective.

  • 72% of manufacturers are concerned about finding the skills they need for their business [1]
  • 75% of manufacturers reported finding it difficult to recruit for engineering roles in the past three years [1]
  • The proportion of hard to fill vacancies because of a skills shortage is 29%. [2]

However, the recruitment challenge manufacturers face is not just an issue of quantity but one of quality too: 67% of manufacturers said applicants lacked the right technical skills and 61% said applicants lacked any relevant experience [1].

Manufacturers face barriers in filling the skills gap 

Not only has the number of young people graduating as engineers stagnated, so has the number that go on to undertake apprenticeships. Only 6% of learners go on to an apprenticeship after Key Stage 4 (GCSE level) compared with 39% who stay on at school or sixth form college. Though undertaking A Levels in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects is actively encouraged, the industry needs to inspire young people to undertake apprenticeships, particularly in maintenance-related disciplines, which will help to address the skills gap in the sector.

The introduction of the apprenticeship levy has also been a barrier to manufacturers wanting to invest in training to fill the gaps in their workforce. An overwhelming 93% of manufacturers said they have faced difficulties with the apprenticeship levy, from finding an appropriate apprenticeship standard to finding a training organisation that will actually provide it. If industry is to address the skills gap, the levy must be reformed to make it flexible to employer’s needs.

The impact of Industry 4.0 and automation 

Let’s not forget about the impact of Industry 4.0 and automation. As the EEF report Reinventing the Manufacturing Workforce (published in November) found, as the way we work changes because of new technology and new techniques, the workforce and the skills of employees must also evolve. The use of data analytics, new production techniques and the implementation of advanced technologies such as autonomous robots, multi-purpose production lines and augmented reality will help maintenance engineers and technicians by improving yields and speeding up production.

Nevertheless, to achieve these changes, employers will need a multi-skilled workforce – people who can take care of a wide range of problems that may arise in the day-to-day operation of manufacturing. Employees will increasingly be recruited for knowledge-based production roles as opposed to manual work. These changes come when over three-quarters of manufacturers are struggling to fill key roles in their business, with a continuing requirement for engineers, software and data scientists.

How to close the gap

First, let’s get the implementation of T Levels, the new technical alternative to A Levels to be introduced in 2020, right. In principle, T Levels could boost the number of young people studying STEM and eventually working in maintenance-related careers. The success of T Levels will hinge on not rushing through the reforms and making sure the three-month placement that students have to undertake can be provided to the right quality in the right quantity.

Second, the apprenticeship levy must be reformed so that it allows manufacturers to invest in apprenticeships to fill their skills gaps. Greater flexibility in how levy funds can be used will encourage manufacturers to take on apprentices, and also allow manufacturers who already offer apprenticeships to increase their intake.

Finally, these reforms must all be underpinned by better STEM inspiration in general. There must be greater emphasis on the engineering element of this if we are to encourage more people into maintenance-related careers. Only 4,972 students took Engineering at GCSE in 2017: that’s only 0.1% of all students.

This is partly because of the high cost of providing this subject and partly because of a shortage of teachers to teach the subject. However, campaigns such as Year of Engineering and This is Engineering are changing perceptions among young people and their peers.

As Industry 4.0 becomes prevalent, the way we work will also change. Businesses will need to adapt, grow and evolve to meet this challenge. Making sure they can get the right people with the right skills will be of paramount importance to their success now and in the future.

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